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The Process: Hand-dyeing Wool

The beautiful colors of the Manos Zapotecas bags are not created overnight. The tradition of hand-dyeing sheep’s wool has been passed down through generations and is still used to this day by our artisans. On a clear blue morning I made my way to Teotitlan del Valle to learn about the process and ingredients behind the seemingly infinite array of colors.


Graciela and Ludivina, two of MZ’s artisans, work with a mix of natural and chemical ingredients specific to the desired end color. I got to chat with both of them to understand the merits of both techniques, and Ludavina let me sit in and witness the colorful process.

Chemical dyeing using aniline is more accessible, affordable and quicker. Graciela explained that while natural dyes require more time and hard work, they are great for making dark, earthy tones. She uses the marigold flower to achieve yellows and oranges, moss for greens, coconut fibers and nuts for shades of beige and brown, and indigo for blues.  Aniline dyes are better for creating a brighter color with more pop. Ludivina likes to use aniline dyed yarn for the background portion of the tapete (wool rug) and naturally dyed yarn for the smaller more intricate figures.


Ludivina demonstrated for me the dyeing process using cochineal, a bug that is cultivated on the nopal cactus and used to make many variations of reds and purples. While a few weavers still cultivate the bug in the village, Ludivina goes into Oaxaca to buy her cochineal. The dried cochineal then needs be ground down into a powder before entering the dye pot. The wool is soaked and washed prior to dying to rid it of any excess dirt. Cleaning the wool is necessary for the colors to permanently stick and for the dye to evenly distribute amongst the strands.


Now that the wool and cochineal are ready, the dye is put into the big pot where it dissolves for an hour before adding the wool. In contrast, aniline dyes are ready to enter the pot at the same time as the yarn. When the yarn is in the dye pot it’s important to keep a very close eye on it. Regular stirring every 10 minutes is important to ensure an even dye and make sure the color turns out as desired. When using cochineal, the red can turn into a purple in the blink of an eye. Depending on the final desired color, the yarn stays in the pot for one to two hours. At the end, alum, a salt rock, is added to the dye pot as a mordant, a binder for the dye and wool.


When the wool has reached its desired shade it is washed a second time through to check for clarity and to remove any residue that may be left behind. Now the wool is ready to be hung dry for a day or two, depending on the amount of sunshine. The entire dye process can take anywhere from two days to a week depending on the amount of yarn needed, which colors are being made, and which dyes are being used.


While these women receive help from their family for the weaving portion, they do the dyeing by themselves. It takes a lot of hard work to make the colors turn out just right, but it’s an enjoyable task. Watching Ludivina use the cochineal bug to dye skeins of yarn and turn her humble home bright red, was a beautiful site.


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